Why Get Certified?
With a New Year comes fresh energy and motivation to elevate your career to the next level. My name is Jorge, I’m a Lead Cloud Engineer for CloudHesive – an AWS Premier Consulting Partner. I hold 9 active AWS certifications attained over the course of the last three years. Coming from an on-premises infrastructure background, I was looking to expand my horizons and found my calling while studying for the Solutions Architect Associate Certification. I would like to distill some of my experience in this post to help you on your journey.
AWS Certifications provide a framework to learn a wide variety of skills in a short amount of time. There are different learning paths that you can tackle based on role or on specific solutions. Set a time-bound goal, be aggressive, and learn skills under duress. It has been my experience that when the clock is ticking, you really start to pull out all the stops to reach your goal. This pressure, I feel, is crucial to get your certification goals achieved – so give yourself time, but not too much!
Make a Plan
Treat your exam like a managed project with a project plan. Set a date for your exam and work backwards from your exam date: How Many Hours can you dedicate a week? If you are taking a course, look at the course, get a rough estimate of hours. After the course, take practice exams. Estimate how much time these will take too – along with time to review your results and study weak areas. Realistically estimate how many hours you can dedicate, and adjust your schedule as needed. Remember to account for hands-on work as well – this is highly recommended to cement your learning.
Take Good Notes
You will be encountering A LOT of material in your journey and – as such – capturing the pertinent parts will help your learning. Especially when watching lessons – do not just watch them passively – engaging your mind by jotting down notes will increase engagement and help you commit the material to memory.
Take notes in your favorite program – some examples are OneNote and Evernote. What has been key for my note taking program is being able to index and search your notes. When you are in the home stretch and trying to review everything about a particular service – for example – Amazon ElastiCache – it helps to pull up all the relevant learning you have done so far. Copy difficult concepts to continually review and refine your understanding. Another great bonus is if there is a smartphone app you can sync those notes to for micro-study sessions during the little minutes of your day. Use your notes to keep track of all your exam prep objectives and check them off as you progress.
Strategize for Success
What works for you? Set apart dedicated time for study: such as an hour or two each morning or an hour or two each evening. Instead, or in addition to, you can add marathon sessions on the weekends. Set up a cadence to make sure you are making consistent progress. Also, use the little minutes: When you’re waiting in line, or waiting for anything, instead of playing around on your phone, look at some of your questions, or a quick snippet of documentation. Make it your mission to immerse yourself in the chosen field of study. A little bit of practice and a little bit of learning each day adds up over time.
If you’re struggling with a topic, watching or listening to a re:Invent video for that service can help (300 level and up recommended). When taking practice exams, refrain from taking breaks unless you must. Instead, practice taking it all in one sitting, to prepare for test day. This is an endurance challenge. Ideally you want to be able to finish with time to review flagged questions and with energy left so you do not make careless, avoidable mistakes due to fatigue.
Break it Down
Specialty and Professional exams are as much a test of reading endurance as they are of knowledge. If English is not your first language, be sure to request accommodations before you schedule your exam – you may be allotted extra time. To cut down on the rate of reading fatigue – I recommend the following strategies for tackling big questions:
Read the ‘question’ first, not the entire scenario. The question is typically comprised of the last sentence(s) in a scenario. Pay extra special attention to what the question is asking for – does it ask for the most performant solution, for the least expensive, or other requirements? Next take a quick look at the answers – are there any obviously incorrect answers? Then go back and carefully read the scenario. Spend time reading and learning key AWS services – read FAQs and documentation – become familiar with what each service is strongest at – just because a service can work doesn’t mean it’s the best one to solve a problem. AWS Certification exams test your ability as a builder to select the optimal service. Watch out for distractors – is it referencing a service that simply does not exist? Or a feature that does not exist for a particular service?
Make sure you are completing questions at the necessary rate. For Example – when I sat the professional exams the time Limit was approximately 3 Hours with 77-80 Questions. This gives you about 2 minutes per question with 20 minutes left over for review. Use the Flag for Review button -don’t spend too much time on your first pass of the exam questions – certainly do not spend too much time on a single question on your first pass. Use your scratch paper or virtual whiteboard to mark down quick thoughts on problem questions you may have flagged – so you can review when you go back to them. You can also use it to dump things you have memorized — such as Instance sizes or CloudFront Allowed Methods
Practice Makes Perfect
Many of these exams recommend several years of experience – and for good reason. They will test you on a wide cross section of knowledge – as you move up you will be presented with many difficult and ambiguous scenarios to solve (just like the real world!). If you are unfamiliar with a service that you wish to master – get your hands dirty! Experiment with an AWS free tier account, a company sandbox if your workplace provides for this (we do!), or self-paced labs. Getting experience with AWS services will help cement the knowledge you are gaining. Some of the most valuable lessons come from troubleshooting.
In Summary, to successfully build your skills and get AWS Certified – I recommend the following steps:
- Overview: Build your high-level knowledge. Utilize AWS Documentation, training, books, re:Invent videos.
- Get experience – work on labs or personal projects – get your hands dirty.
- Throughout all of this – take good notes! Note patterns as they emerge.
- Review the Exam Blueprint, sample questions and practice exams.
- For any areas you are weak in – go back to lectures, re:Invent videos, AWS documentation, and self-paced labs.
Repeat until you feel sufficiently ready and\or time’s up! (Set a date! Learn under duress)
Are you ready? Start Today – and Good Luck on your AWS Certification Journey!